David Isenberg Headshot

Dear U.S. State Department: Less BNS and More PNS, Please

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In case anyone has possibly forgotten, in September 2007 the firm formerly known as Blackwater, Inc., now Xe Services, a private security contractor (PSC) under contract with the Department of State (DoS), was involved in an incident at Nisoor Square in Baghdad, Iraq that resulted in the death of 17 Iraqi civilians.

Since then there has been lots of rhetoric and even some significant action taken to better control and supervise the actions of PSCs in war zones.

But not enough, according to a just-released audit, Monitoring Responsibilities for Serious Incidents Involving Private Security Contractors Once U.S. Military Forces Leave Iraq Have Not Been Determined, released by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR).

This reminds me that someday, when a historian is writing the hopefully definitive history of private security contractors in Iraq, he or she will need to create a new acronym to denote time periods, similar to the division between B.C. and A.D. In this case, however, it will have to be BNS and PNS, standing for Before Nisoor Square and Post Nisoor Square. But right now, from the perspective of effective oversight, we are still in the BNS era.

In April 2009, SIGIR reported on the DOD system for reporting, investigating, and remediating serious incidents involving PSCs in Iraq. Because of the planned withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Iraq in December 2011, SIGIR reviewed the U.S. government's current and planned oversight of PSCs in that country. SIGIR's objectives for this report were to determine changes in the serious incident reporting and investigating system since SIGIR's 2009 report, plans for the system after U.S. military forces leave Iraq, and coordination of serious incidents with the Government of Iraq (GOI).

What the audit found is disturbing. Similar to the finding in SIGIR's July 30 quarterly report, that Embassy-Baghdad declined to respond to questions concerning the use of support contracts -- including the Logistics Civil Augmentation Program (LOGCAP) -- to provide services to DoS posts in Iraq involved in managing reconstruction programs," SIGIR encountered:

significant constraints imposed by DoS' Bureau of Diplomatic Security. The Bureau was unresponsive to SIGIR's requests for information. This adversely affected the report and limited its scope, methodology, and our ability to accomplish audit objectives.

Even more disturbing is that SIGIR found that the system for reporting and investigating serious incidents involving U.S. government PSCs has changed little since SIGIR's 2009 report. Moreover, DOD's system is projected to remain unchanged through the end of December 2011, when U.S. military forces plan to leave Iraq.

Also, the future effectiveness of the system is hazy:

The system's future is less certain as responsibilities for monitoring the activities of DoD PSCs has not been fully determined and may be disestablished, even though U.S.-funded PSCs will continue to support DoD and DoS organizations and the U.S. Agency for International Development. We could not determine DoS' plans for its PSCs that currently report their missions and serious incidents through DoD's system, because DoS would not provide us with that information.

For those who have wondered how the system for investigating incidents involving PSCs in Iraq works it goes like this.

PSCs operating in Iraq are categorized by tiers, based on the organization for which they are working. The U.S. Embassy's Regional Security Office (RSO) is responsible for coordinating the missions of DoS PSCs that directly support the Chief of Mission. These are referred to as Tier I PSCs that provide services to DOS under the Worldwide Personal Protective Services contracts. The missions of DoS private security contractors and subcontractors who indirectly support the Chief of Mission (referred to as Tier II) are coordinated through DOD channels. For example, PSCs supporting contractors, subcontractors, and grantees working for DoS agencies and the U.S. Agency for International Development are considered Tier II PSCs.

Serious incidents involving Tier I PSCs are reported directly to the RSO, whereas serious incidents involving Tier II PSCs are reported to the RSO through DOD channels. The RSO is responsible for investigating incidents involving Tier I and Tier II contractors and subcontractors.

DOD relies on the Contractor Operations Cells (CONOC) throughout Iraq to coordinate the missions of DoS Tier II PSCs; DoD PSCs (referred to as Tier III); and PSCs who support foreign embassies, commercial enterprises, and others in Iraq (referred to as Class C).

The CONOC is also responsible for gathering, assembling, and distributing information on serious incidents involving the Tier II and Tier III PSCs. DOD also relies on the Armed Contractor Oversight Branch (ACOB) to receive serious incident reports from the CONOC and ensure that all serious incidents involving DoD Tier III PSCs are reported, tracked, and investigated. Both the CONOC and ACOB are under U.S. Forces-Iraq (USF-I), which is in U.S. Central Command's chain of command. Figure 1 shows the serious incident reporting process.

Unfortunately, ACOB and CONOC are on their way out. SIGIR reported that CONOC and ACOB operations are to continue through December 2011 although there will be reductions in the number and size of CONOC operations as U.S. military forces in Iraq decline. ACOB officials told us that the CONOC operates with 31 contractor personnel from 4 locations. The number of contractor personnel and locations will decline through the remainder of calendar year 2011 and may be disestablished at the end of the year. The number of personnel in ACOB has already been reduced to two full-time personnel from three in 2009, with one devoted to managing PSC arming authority. The ACOB may be disestablished when USF-I withdraws from Iraq in December 2011.

Yet, in a classic WTF moment, SIGIR was told by RSO officials that the RSO has no plans to assume the responsibilities currently performed by the CONOC or ACOB once U.S. military forces leave Iraq, even though PSCs working for DOD and DoS agencies and the U.S. Agency for International Development will be operating in Iraq after 2011.

ACOB officials told SIGIR that the Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq (OSC-I) has agreed to monitor its PSCs but the decision concerning which organization(s) will monitor the performance of other DoD PSCs has not been made. OSC-I is scheduled to begin operations on October 1, 2011 and will be responsible for managing the U.S. Foreign Military Sales and International Military Education and Training programs in Iraq. Although SIGIR requested to speak with individuals who might be familiar with OSC-I's role and responsibility with regard to monitoring PSCs, U.S. Central Command did not honor that request.

SIGIR's conclusion is this:

The current oversight system of U.S. government PSCs was established to guard against serious incidents that could embarrass the U.S. government or have serious consequences for U.S.-Iraq relations. We were told that discussions are underway between U.S. military and DoS officials concerning future roles and responsibilities of U.S. government organizations to remain in Iraq after December 2011. We have not been privy to the effects of those discussions. However, in other countries where the U.S. has diplomatic missions, the Chief of Mission is ultimately responsible for the activities of U.S. government executive agencies in those countries and communicating and coordinating with the host government. Although we could not obtain complete information concerning the reporting and investigating of serious incidents once U.S. military forces leave Iraq, it appears no single U.S. organization in Iraq will be responsible for overseeing the actions of U.S.-funded PSCs and resolving any serious incidents with the GOI involving PSCs if the Chief of Mission does not fill the role.

In other words, if there is to be effective oversight of PSC in Iraq in the future, the State Department needs to man up and step up to the plate. Unfortunately, given its record to date, I'm not holding my breath.